Regular People Who Changed the World, and How You Can Too

Altruism has important evolutionary benefits, say Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

In their first best-selling book, Half the Sky, husband and wife team Nicholas D. Kristof, a New York Times columnist, and Sheryl WuDunn—who together were the first married couple to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism—looked at the struggles faced by women and girls around the world.

Now, in A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, they bring us uplifting stories of individuals who are making the world a better place—from two women transforming a Nairobi slum by expanding educational opportunities for girls to an American doctor using the principles of epidemiology to combat inner-city problems.

We caught up with the authors during their book tour and heard how a woman in Malawi used doughnuts to transform her—and her husband's—life, why the United States has to rely on private philanthropy, and why giving is as pleasurable as eating ice cream or falling in love.

The title of your book comes from a quote by Lu Xun, a leading figure in Chinese literature. Tell us about the quote and how it inspired this book.

WuDunn: The quote is: "Hope is like a path in the countryside. Originally, there is nothing—but as people walk this way again and again, a path appears." We thought it was so apt for this book because it really is about how if you throw more resources at a problem, you will find a solution.

And A Path Appears is really about all the different solutions that have bubbled up over the years. Most of them are focused on domestic problems, but there are a lot of solutions that we haven't implemented on as grand a scale as we should.

It's also important to mention that these solutions are dreamed up by individuals, which really highlights the idea that a few individuals can make a difference. I think that often gets lost when we talk about the challenges of poverty. We think the government has to step in. But, actually, everyone can contribute.

Nelson Rockefeller said, "A man should make all he can and give all he can." Private philanthropy is a cornerstone of American culture. But not so much elsewhere. In Europe people don't expect charity. They expect their government to provide essential social services. Where do you stand on this?

Kristof: I agree that the government here has dropped the ball in providing services, especially to children. There are desperate needs among a lot of children across America.

We wouldn't think of building an interstate highway system by asking private individuals to write checks or to personally dig an extra few feet of highway. I wish the government were addressing these needs. But it isn't. In the absence, I think it's important to galvanize individuals both to donate and make a difference where they can—and to advocate for those who don't have voices.

You start with a story that really is the heart of this book and our humanity. Tell us about Rachel Beckwith.

Kristof: There are a lot of people who would like to make a difference, but the problems can seem so vast that they don't know what to do. Rachel struck us as an example of someone who can show us the way. Rachel was an eight-year-old at the time. So if she can figure this out, hey, anybody can.

She had heard about problems with lack of clean water in poor countries, so she decided to donate her ninth birthday to an organization called Charity: Water. In lieu of birthday presents, she asked people to donate to Charity: Water. She set up a page on their website and set a goal of $300. She was a bit bummed out that she only raised $220.

Then, a few weeks later, Rachel was in a car accident. As she was in the hospital, fighting for her life, friends and her community were struggling to figure out how to show their support and solidarity. They decided to donate to her fund-raiser, and very quickly she surged past $300, then past $1,000, and then past $5,000.

Her parents didn't know if she could hear them or not, but they would whisper to her and tell her how her fund-raiser had set a new record, surpassing the goal Justin Bieber had set for his birthday.

Tragically in the end Rachel died. Obviously nothing can salve the grief her parents felt for the loss of their daughter, but at the same time the page did raise $1.2 million dollars—an extraordinary sum that ended up providing water for 30,000 Ethiopians. For us, Rachel underscores the ability we each have to make a difference.

In a recent article in the Guardian, Julia Gillard [the former prime minister of Australia] and actress Cate Blanchett talked about the importance of educating women. Your research in philanthropy shows the same. Why are women so important to improving communities and the world?

WuDunn: If you educate a woman and bring her into the formal labor force, they become a practical approach to changing the world around them. There's a saying that development experts like to use: If you educate a boy, he does very well, but if you educate a girl, you educate an entire village.

Because of the role she plays in the household, she raises boys and girls in a more enlightened way. Evidence shows how critical a role women can play in society. If they're marginalized, there's also evidence that when you have just mainly young men in the mainstream, the culture takes on certain characteristics of a men's locker room. That means, for instance, that it can be more violent. So it really is important to bring women into the mainstream of society. But they can only be productive if they are educated.

Another very practical implication if you educate a woman is that she tends to have fewer kids. That's very important because population growth has a lot of implications for a country but also for a household. It's harder to manage more kids if you're poor and pay for food and health care and education.

The story of Biti Rose Nasoni shows how a village micro-savings program transformed her family's lives. Tell us about her.

WuDunn: Micro-savings is one of the most effective tools for empowering women. The case of Biti Rose was interesting because the women in the village all get together and pool their money to lend to her. Biti was able to turn that wealth into something pretty spectacular. She started by making doughnuts. At first she sold a few dozen per day, and then people really liked her doughnuts, and she started selling hundreds.

She was bringing in more cash than the family could even imagine. She was also a woman who was mistreated by her husband, but after she started bringing in more money, of course her husband wanted to a part of the business too. They ended up being like local tycoons. It was a real success story. And it highlights how micro-savings programs can be really effective.

Social attitudes toward women when they're not educated and not productive, except in bringing in children, show that there is usually not much respect for them. The men also control the purse strings, and though the kids need food or education, they'll go out and spend it on alcohol or gambling. Biti's husband was that way. But when she started bringing in cash, he started paying attention. They're now in partnership together and get along much better.

We see this so many times—it elevates the status of a woman when she can support the family. Poverty can destroy a relationship as well as a family. Economic empowerment elevates the entire family: The husband starts respecting her, the children start respecting her, the in-laws start respecting her, the village starts respecting her.

One of the worries many people have is where their charitable donations actually end up. I remember the case of a toilet destined for a village in Africa, which had been paid for by donations. But when a TV crew followed the story up, they found that instead of being used by the village, the toilet had been installed by the local chief in his private compound.

Kristof: I'm reasonably confident that most of the big organizations, like Oxfam or Save the Children, have a good record. But there are certainly an awful lot that don't. Helping people is harder than it looks. I've spent an awful lot of time visiting projects and coming across things that didn't work.

You see a well that was put in at considerable expense. But then there was no follow-up program to maintain it, so all the washers wear out, and all of a sudden the well is useless. We have to think carefully about making sure money has real impact. The sensible people digging wells are also putting in maintenance programs—if you replace those washers, that well should last for 40 to 50 years.

One of the fascinating facts in your book is that "men are generally more charitable when monitored by women." Is Sheryl the driving force behind your generosity, Nick?

Kristof: [Laughs] I don't think it's so much that women are the driving force. It's that men who are trying to impress women, especially pretty women, are more empathetic and generous. But as it's subconscious, I really have no idea! We have to examine the checkbook to see whether I write more checks when Sheryl is in town beside me.

But it reflects a larger truth: That we write checks, or help others, or give back not only to enrich others but also to enrich ourselves, to impress others or gain respect, to feel better, and even to improve our health. There are real selfish benefits to altruism. You could say altruism itself is a selfish pleasure.

WuDunn: In many ways Nick is an exception to the rule. He's extremely compassionate and generous. He had an aunt who survived the Holocaust and their family went through a whole lot. But for the generosity of other people who lent a helping hand, they wouldn't have made their way to the West. Many of us are immigrants and can remember how many of us were helped.

A number of things are going on when you're giving, and we don't really know how to break it apart into portions. But social recognition plays a large role. There's a study that didn't make it into the book where they were trying to get people to reduce their energy usage, so they posted in the lobby of the building people's efforts to reduce their usage. When it was made public, everyone reduced their energy usage. [Laughs] When it was not public, no one did! So you can see how peer pressure plays a role.

There's also a study that shows that in terms of paying taxes, we don't feel so bad when a portion of the money is put into an account or subsidy for the poor. Some researchers have proposed that we should be able to choose among five different ways to pay our taxes, like education, health care, the military. Wouldn't that be interesting?

Neuroscientists are making all kinds of discoveries about the brain, and at one point you both underwent brain scans to assess which areas of your brain were used when considering charitable acts. What you don't tell us is what the results of your scans were. What did you find out about yourself from that experience?

WuDunn: What they discovered was really interesting. It turns out that the parts of the brain that light up when you give are the same areas that light up when you indulge in pleasures like when you're eating ice cream or falling in love. Half of the research subjects derived more pleasure from making donations than from getting gifts. It's really very biblical, right? [Laughs]

Kristof: In some primal way it's more blessed to give than to receive.

So should survival of the fittest be renamed survival of the most generous? Tell us how biologists are discovering that we may be hard-wired toward altruistic behavior from as far back as the Stone Age.

Kristof: Darwin puzzled over it, and evolutionary biologists have continued to do so ever since. Humans and other animals are constantly engaging in acts of altruism that don't intrinsically make evolutionary sense. Even rats will press a lever to let other rats access food. If it's all about survival of the fittest, behavior like that wouldn't make sense. And people have come up with all sorts of theories about why it makes evolutionary sense to be altruistic.

The best explanation seems to be, in part, that survival of the fittest operated not at the individual level but the group level. If there was one clan or tribe that cooperated more, that looked after each other, that tribe had an advantage over other tribes where everybody was just out for themselves. More broadly, there are mechanisms because of the evolutionary benefit of generosity. In mating behavior, for instance, we have a high regard, in part, for people who seem generous.

WuDunn: Darwin himself recognized the value of cooperation. Humans are extremely social, more so than we think. There's a theory that shows if you cooperate, you may survive better than if you're a loner and only out to fend for yourself, because other people don't think you're helping the group. We don't always think about that when we think about the survival of the fittest. But Darwin acknowledged that. He also acknowledged compassion as part of survival.

One of the things I found really interesting was your discussion of social economics and generosity. Can you illuminate that?

Kristof: The wealthiest 20 percent of Americans donate significantly less than the poorest 20 percent. I don't think that's because the affluent are intrinsically less empathetic or less compassionate.

Rather, if you're affluent, you can pretty effectively insulate yourself from need. But if you're poor in America, you're every day seeing people who are even needier than yourself, and when you see those needs, you tend to respond. It's one of the challenges, and hopefully one of the purposes, of A Path Appears—to connect with some of those affluent folks and help them appreciate that they can have an effect.

Readers will be inspired by the stories you tell and your message to the world community. What did you learn about humanity and your own humanity writing and researching this book?

Kristof: I think the single thing that left the deepest impression on me was the impact of nutrition. There's this study of children conceived during Ramadan in largely Muslim countries. It shows that as adults they're more prone to disabilities, including intellectual disabilities, apparently because their moms were fasting during daylight hours, perhaps before they even knew they were pregnant. They aren't starving. It's not a famine. But I think we have this misapprehension that children are infinitely resilient. They are in many ways—but perhaps less than we thought.

A study of orphans in Bucharest, Romania, shows what was crucial was the age the children were taken out of these really terrible orphanages. If they were taken out before the age of two and put into a loving foster home, they showed some resiliency. If they were taken out after the age of two, they couldn't ever really recover the lost ground. Even when they were much older, you could see in their brain scans the toll of having been in that orphanage—not being talked to, or cuddled, or held in the first years of life.

There are so many problems in the world, and so many organizations wanting charitable donations, that we can sometimes feel overwhelmed. You help us weed through those issues and find that path so we can make a difference.

WuDunn: Absolutely. It's really important it should be something that we incorporate as part of our lives—not just an afterthought or on a lark. Giving can be something that adds a lot more meaning to our lives.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at Follow Heather Dune Macadam on Twitter‪.

Read This Next

Can science help personalize your diet?
Hogs are running wild in the U.S.—and spreading disease
Salman Rushdie on the timeless beauty of the Taj Mahal

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet